By P. Oppili
A sudden increase in the number of deaths of Olive Ridley turtles along the 134-km stretch of the Chennai coast from Napier Bridge up to Marakkanam has shocked conservationists.
More than 120 turtles were found dead from near Napier Bridge to Neelankarai by the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) between the end of December and January 31. Another 119 deaths were recorded on the shoreline from Neelankarai up to Marakkanam by the volunteers of TREE Foundation.
Akila Balu of the SSTCN said since last month, the volunteers of the group recorded at least five dead turtles along the stretch every night during their turtle walks. One night, the volunteers sighted 14 dead turtles between Napier Bridge and Neelankarai.
The volunteers have taken the issue to the notice of Chief Wildlife Warden, Tamil Nadu, who promised to take up the issue with Fisheries and Environment departments.
Some years ago, following a request from conservationists, the Chennai Corporation agreed to switch off the high mast lights along the shore during the turtle nesting season between December and ends in March, Ms. Akila said.
A G.O. in this regard was also issued. But, the lights are not regularly switched off and this attracted the turtles towards the shore, resulting in their deaths, she said.
Supraja Dharini of TREE Foundation attributes the increase in the number of deaths to the tendency of trawlers to fish close to the coastline and use of gill net by fishermen. With an increase in the demand for seer fish, many fishermen have started using these nets.
Dr. Dharini explained that the gill net wraps the turtle, leading to its death.
The turtles have to come up to the surface once in every 45 minutes to breathe and if caught in a net, they drown. Inspection of the carcasses revealed the bloating of the body and bulging of both eyes and the neck, she said.
Another problem is the use of ray fish net. She said turtles often get entangled in this net which has a wide mesh with a strong rope. They are unable to wriggle out, she said.
Dr. Dharini said: “Sea turtles have been categorised under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act on par with lions, tigers or leopards. Killing any animal or marine organism falling under this category would attract severe punishment. But, due to lack of awareness, the death of marine organisms such as sea turtles are not given due importance.”